Won’t Read, Can’t Read-Part 2


Won't Read, Can't Read Part 2


In my previous blog on this topic, I promised that I would discuss why many children can’t read, and why so many more struggle. In this installment, I also explain the reasons why “27-34% of fourth graders in the USA read significantly below grade level.”



Like a lot of human behavior, reading is influenced by many different factors that come from multiple directions: Socio-economic, a child’s abilities as well as that of their parents, cultural, language, and educational. As I will explain, all these are significant, but if we believe that education matters and trust that it can level the playing field for all students, then we have to ask ourselves: “How much does the way reading is taught affect reading success?” 


Improved, science-based, reading practices can lead to success for a lot more children, and reduce the impact of some of the factors that I have mentioned. I will discuss why this isn’t happening, but first, we should look briefly at some of the factors that cause underachievement, before turning to focus on the significant role that education could play in improving outcomes for all students. 


Many believe that the way to solve US literacy problems is to get rid of poverty, and we all acknowledge that gaps in educational opportunity are very real, but it is just not the case that low achievement in reading is a result of poverty alone. Poverty is a huge factor, but not the only one. The US lags behind countries such as Canada and Finland in terms of reading scores at all socioeconomic status (SES) levels, not just at the low end. Our schools would appear not to be doing as much as those in other countries to close this achievement gap. In Finland, for example, there are predictably strong educational outcomes for all, regardless of where children go to school. 


Many achievement gaps exist in this country, and certainly disparities in how well different groups of individuals perform are very real. Here I will focus on the reading gap for African Americans, dialect speakers, and Hispanics, many of whom are English Language Learners (ELL.) Once again SES is seen as an important factor, but comparing groups where SES levels for blacks, whites and Hispanics are the same, the gaps between them still exist. The important factor here is language. Many African Americans regularly speak some amount of African American English (AAE) which overlaps with “standard” American English, but is also different. White children generally use “standard” American English at both home and school. African American children who speak AAE at home are faced with the challenge of having to learn “standard’ American English before they can learn to read and write in school. 


Julie Washington, Ph.D, discusses many of these issues and what can be done to support AAE speakers, in her presentation “Growth of Language and Literacy in Low-Income African American First through Fifth Graders,” for the AIM Institute. It is perhaps easier to see that children who speak another language would have difficulty in a classroom where English is the language used for instruction, and in the books that they read. Just like African Americans they have to learn to “code switch” between the language spoken at home and that spoken at school. In addition they find themselves in a new culture that creates further difficulties as they struggle to comprehend concepts and words that haven’t been a part of their previous life and experiences. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan, Ed.D, discusses this in her presentation “Differentiated Language and Literacy Instruction for English Learners. 


As you can see this creates a situation where many children are behind in language development and in terms of being ready to read when they arrive at school. Children from low income or SES families, those speaking a non-mainstream dialect, and ELL students, are all at much higher risk of low reading achievement. 


However, if Pre-K children from these groups could participate in Language-enrichment programs that are focused on growing their knowledge of school English, this could go a long way to reducing this gap. If such programs were to include staff that had a variety of language and cultural backgrounds this would further help such students; for example by modeling code switching. 


Even so, the reading-achievement gaps for these groups don’t fully explain why many children can’t read, and why so many more struggle in the US. Poverty is unlikely to be eliminated soon, and although reading has got better, it hasn’t improved enough in this country for enough people, so we need to look at reading practices to further level the playing field for more of our students. 


In a previous blog I described “The Reading Wars,” and I hinted at what Martin Seidenberg[2] calls “The Two Cultures of Science and Education,” which has resulted in a lack of training for teachers in the area of the science of reading. Seidenberg argues that: 

“The major factor contributing to our national underachievement in reading is the culture of education, by which I mean the beliefs and attitudes about how children learn, the role of the teacher, and the educational mission that dominates the schools of education, which are the main pathway into the profession, and the advocacy organizations closely tied to them, such as the National Council of Teachers of English. This culture is an obstacle to improving educational outcomes.” 


He goes on to say:

 ”In the case of reading, however, the extent to which the dominant beliefs and practices continue to be misaligned with children’s needs is not adequately recognized, in my view. I must also emphasize that my concerns focus not on teachers – their integrity, commitment, motivation, abilities, effort, sincerity, or intelligence – but rather what they are taught about child development in general and reading in particular and about the teacher’s role. Responsibility rests with the educators who teach the teachers, shaping their expectations about the profession and curating the ideas and methods to which they are exposed. The people who enter the field of education are being underserved by the authorities they have entrusted with their careers.” 


This situation has left teachers unable to teach reading, because they have not been taught the body of knowledge they require to carry out this task. 


Here, I’d like to share the story of one of those teachers, Su Williams, who was a classroom teacher for children in grades three to six for over 17 years. During that time she was often confused and frustrated by the number of children she saw that couldn’t read. That included her dyslexic son. I recommend you listen to this interview with Su[3] as she describes her journey to find a better way to teach reading. I’d like to thank Dr. Michael Hart and Su Williams for allowing me to share this story.


Half of US children read at a basic level and few become fully proficient, but rather than focus only on the undisputed role of poverty in this, we need to focus on the large role that education could play in changing and improving these outcomes. The way we teach children how to read isn’t working. Teachers lack the training and knowledge in how reading actually works or what to do when reading isn’t happening at all for some students. For further listening on this subject I recommend the radio documentary “Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Students with Dyslexia.” 


I plan to cover what teachers are being taught, and why it isn’t working, in a future pair of blogs entitled, “Why Can’t All My Students Read?…A Teacher’s Perspective,” and “Why Can’t All Our Students Read?…The Solutions.” 


Finally, here are two great resources for teachers, tutors and parents to help create a level playing field for all students.



For teaching phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition skills, to both younger and older students, I recommend the program “Equipped for Reading Success,” by David A. Kilpatrick, Ph.D.


The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy provide their Level 1 Basic Language Course, to train teachers, tutors, and parents to meet the needs of students with poor phonic skills. The Orton-Gillingham Approach and programs based on this approach can be used to teach all children to read. 



1. David A.Kilpatrick, Ph.D. Equipped for Reading Success

2. Mark Seidenberg. Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It. 

3. Su Williams and Dr Michael Hart, “Su’s Journey 




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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